It was a gruesome weekend for wide releases, as two sure-fire openers underperformed, which frankly ought to make Disney very nervous for next weekend. Debuting at a somewhat soft number one was The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The picture is the third in the Chronicles of Narnia series, and likely the last. The first two films in the series were financed in a joint venture between Walden Entertainment and Walt Disney. But after the (comparatively) underwhelming domestic performance of the second film in the series, Prince Caspian, Disney cut its losses and 20th Century Fox picked up the popular fantasy franchise. With a $24.5 million opening weekend for a $140 million venture, Fox will likely do the same cutting and running unless overseas numbers astound. This opening weekend is nearly identical to The Golden Compass, which opened with $25 million on this weekend in December 2007. That infamous 'flop' cost $180 million and ended up with just $70 million in the US. Of course, the film grossed $302 million overseas, so Fox has to be praying for a similar result (the worldwide opening was a promising $81 million).
The series debuted on this weekend five years ago, as the heavily-hyped and Christian-centric Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe opened with $65 million. The film had genuine legs over the holiday season and went on to gross $291 million domestic and $745 million worldwide, completely stealing the thunder from the otherwise solidly performing King Kong ($218 million domestic/$550 million worldwide) which opened the following weekend. The second film in the francise, Prince Caspian, debuted in mid-May of 2008, opening with 'just' $55 million. But the sequel lacked the reams of free publicity that the first film received, both for its 'Christian undertones' (I can't speak for the later books, but the first one is no more overtly religious than The Matrix) and the popularity of that first volume. It was also hurt by a marketing campaign that emphasized the mass battle scenes and less fantastical nature of the story, making the PG-rated film look like a PG-13 rated action picture (which was arguably an accurate reading of the occasionally violent film). The arguably superior second picture ended its run with $141 million in domestic grosses and $419 million worldwide. That's certainly nothing to sneeze at, even with the $225 million budget. But perception is everything and the film was tagged a failure. When part 3 was offered, Disney demanded a budget cut to $100 million (which wasn't the worst idea in the world, if only on principle), but Walden balked and Fox stepped up with the $140 million 'required'.
Alas, Voyage of the Dawn Treader was most hampered by a general disinterest. Most of the press went to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part I, Tangled, and Tron: Legacy, leaving the once-mighty Chronicles of Narnia as just an also-ran. The film seemed to be halfheartedly marketed, with a far-more kid-centric campaign this time around. But the ads revealed no real story and little spectacle outside of the kids on a boat and Aslan making a bigger appearance here than he did in Prince Caspian. The film played 51% female, 52% over-25, and 44% to families, while scoring an A from Cinemascore. Alas, the once dominant Narnia series is now playing in the same shallow pool as Eragon and The Spiderwick Chronicles. On paper, Fox's decision, to keep the budget under $150 million and move the series back to it's mid-December berth was a seemingly smart one. This was just a case of audiences losing interest in a once noted series. More aggressive marketing may have helped, or it may have just added to the red ink. The Chronicles of Narnia perhaps was never that beloved a series, and the hype over the much-read first book simply kept its first sequel above water. Whatever the case, we will likely not be seeing a film version of The Silver Chair.
The other big wide release also stumbled a bit, but the damage was not quite as severe. The Tourist, a romantic thriller starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, opened with $17 million. It's a softer opening than the two are used to in their purely commercial vehicles, but romantic thrillers are not what either of these two titans are known for. It's not a disaster, as $17-23 million is about what Depp is good for when he's not in a big budget fantasy film (think The Secret Window and/or Once Upon A Time In Mexico). The marketing was pretty solid, with a fun and peppy trailer leading the way. The deciding factor may have been the dreadful reviews, which highlighted the film's apparent dullness. Reviews are more important for films aimed at adults, and Sony hid this one until the last possible minute. Cinemascore gave the film a 'B', which is actually pretty low for audience polling. The big problem is that this relatively light and action-free thriller cost $100 million. Had the picture been brought in at a reasonable $40-60 million, the soft debut might not have been a big deal. But now Sony is depending on overseas numbers (which Depp and Jolie are usually good for) to save the day. Still, the film may have legs during the holiday season, as the PG-13 caper may appeal to large groups of general moviegoers who don't like video games (Tron: Legacy), westerns (True Grit), god-awful looking family films (Yogi Bear and Gulliver's Travels) or the R-rated Oscar bait floating around (Black Swan, The Fighter, etc).
The big news once again came in limited release. The Fighter debuted on just four screens, and once again a four-screen debut of an anticipated awards-bait drama scored huge. The film grossed $320,000 for an $80,000 per-screen average. The justifiably-acclaimed underdog boxing drama goes wide next weekend, where it has a shot at being a mainstream hit, as it delivers the populist crowd-pleasing bits (first trailer) amidst the artier details (second trailer) and occasionally devastating emotional beats. Arguably as impressive was the successful expansion of equally terrific Black Swan, which grossed $3.3 million on just 90 screens. That's a $37,022 per-screen average, setting the film up for probable mainstream success when the film goes wide over Christmas weekend. It's playability outside of film-nerd world is still a question mark, but this is looking more like a Up in the Air/Juno crossover hit, depending on whether general moviegoers can handle the horror elements and overt sexuality at play. Both films further cement their status as Oscar contenders, even if both are more likely score in the acting categories (Christian Bale and Natalie Portman respectively) than take home the big prize.